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Sequester cuts weigh on Head Start programs

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It’s been almost three months since the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration took effect. Back in February, the White House warned that among the consequences, as many as 70,000 kids could lose access to child development programs funded through Head Start. It’s not clear whether that many have been or will eventually be turned away, but Head Start programs around the country have started implementing the cuts, leaving some parents in a bind for childcare and others worried their kids could fall behind.

Life got a lot harder for Demetria Leavell on May 3. That’s when her 4-year-old daughter, Nahari, was cut from a Head Start program in Hopkinsville, Ky., about an hour from Nashville. Leavell is 24, a single mom who doesn’t know what to do now that she has no daycare for her child.

She says, “Now I’m just, like, juggling her around between family members so I can get to work when I do have to work.”

Ironically, Leavell works as a substitute assistant teacher at the same Head Start center that dropped her daughter. Leavell cradles infants and herds rambunctious toddlers who insist on running when they should walk. Her child is one of 164 kids who were cut from Head Start daycare in western Kentucky. Now Leavell is competing with other desperate parents for daycare.

“Most places have waiting lists and with the summer and with other people getting cut so it’s kind of like a rush with applications and stuff so it’s kinda like a hold for now,” she says.

Everything is on hold for Leavell until she gets childcare: Her plans to get a second job; her dream of going to college. Aubrey Nehring sees lots of struggling parents like Leavell. Nehring is CEO of Audubon Area Community Services, which administers 54 Head Start centers in the region. He lost about 5 percent of his budget because of sequestration. It’s a cut of $750,000. Nehring worries that the kids who were dropped from Head Start won’t be prepared for kindergarten.

“These children that are going to be affected will enter kindergarten at a much reduced likelihood of success in the future,” he says.

About 700 miles away, Monica Ortiz has the same concerns. She directs a Head Start center in Gaithersburg, Md., which is also full of running, giggling toddlers and will also get about a 5 percent budget cut. That works out to $95,000. Ortiz won’t have to cut any kids from her daycare program but she will have to turn away many parents who are anxious to get their kids into Head Start — and call her constantly.

“It’s really frustrating because these phone calls aren’t going to stop,” she explains. “There’s always going to be families at our door looking for services. And we can continue to provide referrals out but it’s frustrating when we feel like we can’t provide the services ourselves.”

Ortiz also runs a Head Start home visitation program, where a Head Start teacher visits a family and helps the parent and child get ready for kindergarten. Ortiz had to lay off two of her home visitation teachers. She thinks she’ll also to have to cut some families from the program and turn away others who’ve been waiting for months.

Like Delmy Escobar. Escobar’s cheerful, but chaotic household is about a 10-minute drive from the Head Start center. Escobar wants to enroll her 18-month-old daughter Sophia in the home visitation program. She has big plans for her kids, and she knows it pays to start educating them early.

“My dream is they go to college and they graduate and they be one doctor or teacher or somebody to help the community,” Escobar says.

Escobar wants her kids to have a better life than she’s had. She grew up in El Salvador, and had to quit school when she was 10.

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